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First thoughts: Debating the goals

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Debating The Goals: Today's White House meeting on Afghanistan at 3:00 pm ET (closed to press) will probably be as much about laying out the potential strategic options -- not troop levels, but about debating what the ultimate goals should be. For instance, is the goal about removing just al Qaeda? Is it about stabilizing Afghanistan? Is it about removing the Taliban, too? Is it about stabilizing Pakistan? Of course, the answer to all of these questions is "yes." But to what extent? That's the ultimate question at today's meeting. Also, why just 40,000 troops? Why not 150,000? (Could it be that 40,000 is simply the maximum number available at this time?) One other thing: Who talks the most at this meeting of heavyweights (not many shrinking violets will be in attendance) could also tell us a bit more about where things are heading. Then again, how pro-forma is the meeting itself? There are so many important folks in this meeting that it's hard to imagine it can be THAT productive.

*** The Guest List: Here's a list of those attending today's meeting: Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, envoy Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry (by remote), Ambassador to Pakistan Patterson (by remote), Defense Secretary Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen, Gen. Petraeus, Gen. McChrystal (by remote), Chief of Staff Emanuel, Director of National Intelligence Blair, CIA head Panetta, U.N. Ambassador Rice, National Security Adviser Jones, Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, and Gen. Lute.

*** Major Disaster In Samoa: Today's biggest story, though, is the tsunami that slammed into Samoa and American Samoa, and the death toll there stands at 99, according to the AP. President Obama declared a major disaster there, and he released this statement early this morning: "Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami in American Samoa and the region. I am closely monitoring these tragic events, and have declared a major disaster for American Samoa, which will provide the tools necessary for a full, swift and aggressive response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in close and constant contact with emergency responders, and the U.S. Coast Guard is fully supporting the deployment of resources to those areas in need of immediate assistance. We also stand ready to help our friends in Samoa and the region. Going forward, we will continue to provide the resources necessary to respond to this catastrophe, and we will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers."

Video: A powerful tsunami slams into the tropical islands of American Samoa and Samoa, killing dozens of people.

*** Stop The Presses! Senate Finance Doesn't Support A Public Option! If you've been paying attention to the health-care debate over the past several months (and reading First Read), you shouldn't have been surprised that the Senate Finance Committee yesterday defeated those public option amendments. But that didn't stop some news outlets from calling yesterday's votes "a crippling blow" to liberals or a "setback" for the White House. Is the public option dead in the Senate? Probably -- and that hasn't changed over the past couple of months. Still, we don't know if a trigger is possible, and we have no idea about the so-called co-op. Yet Baucus' decision to cite votes, even as he praised the idea of a public option, was interesting. And public option advocates have successfully used yesterday's actions to raise even more money to target Baucus (and Olympia Snowe) in TV ads. Maine and Montana are cheap states, so getting on the air in both states isn't hard. By the way, and we've noted this before, TV ads in general appear to be the dog that hasn't bitten.

: Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., shares his perspective on the failure of public option amendments to pass in Senate Finance Committee voting on Tuesday.

*** On The Iran Talks: Per NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Swiss officials say they are moving tomorrow's talks on Iran to another location than originally announced. The talks will now be held in an 18th century government conference center called the Hotel Saugy (pronouonced Saw-Gee). The U.S. delegation flew overnight to Geneva and is holding strategy sessions today with other members of the Security Council, as well as its Swiss hosts. A senior U.S. official told Mitchell that we are now about to test the proposition of whether the (Obama) policy of diplomatic engagement will work -- and that this will be the first chance to see whether Iran is willing to engage constructively on the nuclear issue. The official added that how Iran responds will set the stage for what happens next (whether they proceed with a move toward tougher sanctions, either with the Europeans or, optimally, with the U.N. Security Council). Today's various stories on the run-up to these talks suggest that those who believe engagement will work might be feeling a tad pessimistic. Iran clearly wants to be publicly defiant, and China continues to send NO signals it will be open to serious sanctions. So what happens if these talks fail and sanctions aren't viable thanks to China?

: Diplomats from the U.S., Iran, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

*** All About Daggett? Is the New Jersey race for governor beginning to tighten? A new Quinnipiac poll finds Chris Christie (R) leading incumbent Jon Corzine by four points, 43%-39%. Earlier this month, Christie was ahead by 10 points (47%-37%). That's the good news for Corzine and the Democrats. The bad news is that the incumbent remains stuck in the high 30s, and his approval/disapproval is 36%-58%. Ouch. The reason for Corzine seeming to close the gap? Third-party candidate Christopher Daggett is now getting 12% in the Quinnipiac poll. Indeed, it increasingly looks like the difference between Corzine winning and losing re-election is going to be Daggett. Yet history has shown that indie candidates -- more often than not -- see their numbers go down, not up, on Election Day. A final thought about Corzine: His unfavorable rating is at 56%. Did even Gray Davis, the last governor we can think of to win re-election with an upside down job approval rating, have a 56% unfav rating? Meanwhile, did you know Christie has attended 120 Springsteen concerts in his life?

*** 2007-2008 Flashback: "Norman Hsu, a former prominent Democratic fund-raiser, was sentenced Tuesday to more than 24 years in prison for bilking hundreds of investors of millions of dollars in a nationwide Ponzi scheme and committing campaign finance fraud," the New York Times reports.

*** Obama's Day: Before his meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room, President Obama travels to the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where he tours an NIH lab with HHS Secretary Sebelius and then makes a stimulus-related announcement there at 11:00 am ET. Per the White House, Obama will "announce $5 billion in [Recovery Act] funding to support 12,000 critical research projects – and tens of thousands of jobs associated with them, ranging from teachers and lab technicians to database managers and scientists. These research grants are part of the Recovery Act's overall investment of $100 billion in innovative research and advancing our science and technology infrastructure."

*** Biden's Day: And before he attends today's White House meeting on Afghanistan, Vice President Biden heads to his home state of Delaware, where he will address the Delaware National Guard brigade that just returned from Iraq. One of the members of that brigade, of course, is Biden's son Beau, who is expected to run for his dad's Senate seat next year. Biden's speech in Dover, DE occurs at 1:00 pm ET.

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 34 days
Countdown to MA Special Primary: 69 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 111 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 398 days

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